While those wonderful light sabers in the Star Wars films remain the figment of George Lucas' fertile imagination, light mills - rotary motors driven by light that can power objects thousands of times greater in size are now fact. Researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)'s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California (UC) Berkeley have created the first nano-sized light mill motor whose rotational speed and direction can be controlled by tuning the frequency of the incident light waves. It may not help conquer the Dark Side, but this new light mill does open the door to a broad range of valuable applications, including a new generation of nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS), nanoscale solar light harvesters, and bots that can perform in vivo manipulations of DNA and other biological molecules.
"We have demonstrated a plasmonic motor only 100 nanometers in size that when illuminated with linearly polarized light can generate a torque sufficient to drive a micrometre-sized silica disk 4,000 times larger in volume," says Xiang Zhang, a principal investigator with Berkeley Lab's Materials Sciences Division and director of UC Berkeley's Nano-scale Science and Engineering Center (SINAM), who led this research. "In addition to easily being able to control the rotational speed and direction of this motor, we can create coherent arrays of such motors, which results in greater torque and faster rotation of the microdisk."
The success of this new light mill stems from the fact that the force exerted on matter by light can be enhanced in a metallic nanostructure when the frequencies of the incident light waves are resonant with the metal's plasmons - surface waves that roll through a metal's conduction electrons. Zhang and his colleagues fashioned a gammadion-shaped light mill type of nanomotor out of gold that was structurally designed to maximize the interactions between light and matter. The metamaterial-style
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DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory